The Conservative War on Comedy Is Full of Shit
Comedians should stop apologizing to a crowd that just wants to use them as a punching bag.
Photo of Donald Trump by Chip Somodevilla/Getty; photo of Michelle Wolf by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty
When Donald Trump was elected, it became a trope to say that even if his presidency would obviously be bad for the country, it’d somehow be “good for comedy.” Hey, a gigantic babbling TV clown got elected to the highest office in the country—what’s not to laugh at? This headass prediction completely ignored the climate of Trump’s rise, the anger and resentment that the election had left in its wake, and the man himself—a slathering egotist who boils with rage at the slightest criticism. It turns out that the Trump era, comedy-wise, is a total hellworld.
If you have access to the internet, chances are you caught the big shitstorm caused by Roseanne Barr, a case study in why people over 60 shouldn’t go online, and her wildly racist post about Valerie Jarett. I’m not going to rehash it here because what would be the point of that, but suffice to say that even if you love racism it still wasn’t a funny joke. Very quickly, ABC canceled her show, and that should have been the end of the story. But the conservative outrage machine demanded a sacrifice in the name of both-side-ism, and along came Samantha Bee calling Ivanka Trump a “cunt." Never mind that Roseanne was punching down at an entire race while Bee was poking fun at one of the richest and most powerful people in the world—the comparison caught on in conservative circles, and inevitably led to the White House calling for Bee’s firing.
One of the most annoying things of this entire scenario is the idea that a loathsome brood of billionaire assholes bent on controlling the world are the victims of the real villains: comedians. Following Michelle Wolf’s White House Correspondents Dinner routine, everyone up to and including Trump himself was up in arms about what amounted to relatively harmless jokes directed at the immensely powerful. Even mainstream media figures acted scandalized and called for her to issue a public apology. How dare she say mean things about poor Sarah Sanders? To her credit, Wolf refused to back down or apologize, and of course the indignation cycle moved on, as it always does. That's the only way to handle controversies like that.
I myself am no stranger to the conservative outrage machine. Last year I tweeted a joke about “Antifa Supersoldiers” and the resulting meltdown by conservative media got me banned from Twitter. Outlets like Infowars and Fox and Friends covered the “story,” and some angry right-wingers even said they had tried to sic the FBI and Secret Service on me. Obviously I found all of this to be downright fucking hilarious, but I’m just a dumb internet guy, and the consequences for others have been a lot more harsh than my eventually reversed Twitter ban. (If anyone is wondering how that reversal happened by the way, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey reached out to me to say he thought the joke ruled and that he loves socialism. Feel free to contact him about this.)
If you can remember back to the 2016 campaign, Trump claimed he could shoot a man dead in the middle of Fifth Avenue, and none of his supporters would care. Despite this being a scarily accurate description of his most drooling fans, it was met with relatively no pushback from either side of the aisle, with most people apparently waving it off as a joke. But this in no way prevented Trump’s supporters from screaming and wailing over Kathy Griffin’s “beheaded Trump” photoshoot. Trump himself claimed that his youngest son, Barron, was “having a hard time” with the image. Griffin was excoriated by right-wing media as well as mainstream outlets like CNN, which fired her from a New Year’s gig.
For years, the centrist, establishment media has fetishized the concept of unbiased and polite discourse, and nobody has exploited this more aggressively or successfully than the right. If you’re a conservative, your fellow right-wingers will largely support you no matter what you say or do—just last week Trump pardoned Dinesh D’Souza, a grifter who has claimed Adolf Hitler wasn’t anti-gay and called Rosa Parks “OVERRATED,” wiping out his campaign finance fraud conviction. But when Michelle Wolf calls Sarah Sanders a liar—well, that is a bridge far too far. The right will always manipulate the norms of liberal discourse to its favor while using them to silence anyone with whom it disagrees. It decries censorship of white supremacists on college campuses, then turns around and demands people who tease conservatives be fired. All this is a game of narcissism and disingenuous grievances that smart comedians like Wolf rightfully refuse to play.
Trump has been bad for comedy in the sense that there has been a lot of crappy liberal comedy about him. But worse still is the way the right makes every dumb joke into a world-ending controversy. Conservative media will never accept that any joke at their expense was fair. The goal is to paint liberals as the real bigots, and issuing face-saving apologies doesn’t help—that just plays into the hands of the people trying to move the goalposts. Conservatives love to cite Ben Shapiro’s old saw “facts don’t care about your feelings” or the more obscene “fuck your feelings.” Well, comedians are under no obligation to treat their feelings with the care you'd give a tiny baby hummingbird.
So call Ivanka whatever you want. Tell the world about the time Donald Trump, Jr., got slapped by his dad and talk his wife’s handsome boyfriend. Theorize wildly about the health of the president’s marriage. Point out that Sarah Sanders’s brother killed a dog and her dad, as governor of Arkansas, covered it up. And please, for the love of fucking god, don’t apologize to them afterward.
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